Marian McPartland (1918-2013)

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Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland, a spirited jazz pianist and self-effacing radio personality whose marriage to cornetist Jimmy McPartland in 1946 enabled her to move to the U.S. and work and record here steadily starting in 1948, died on Aug. 20. She was 95.

When I interviewed Marian in 2009, I asked her how she first became interested in jazz while growing up in England. “I heard it every day on the radio in the 1930s," she said. “My younger sister was friends with this guy who tried to interest her in jazz. But she wasn't very interested so he switched from her to me [laughs] because I was fascinated with the music. There was no romance, just someone to play records with. When I started to play jazz on the piano, my parents would simply say, 'Very nice, dear.' So I decided to follow my heart and become a professional musician. Now when audiences applaud, I suppose they're also saying, 'Very nice, dear.' “ 

When Marian and her husband came to the States after World War II, they lived for a time in Chicago. Then Jimmy McPartland helped her form a trio. “That's when I found out there weren't that many women piano players," she said to me. “But I was still one of the lucky ones. Being married to Jimmy, when I wanted to hire someone, no one ever turned me down. I'm sure a lot of female players who weren't married to well-known musicians were turned down all the time by great male sidemen." [Pictured above: Marian and Jimmy McPartland]

But why bebop? “One night in Chicago in the late 1940s I went to hear Jackie and Roy with Charlie Ventura after Jimmy and I worked the Brass Rail. To hear Jackie [Cain] and Roy [Kral] with Charlie was something. Roy played wonderful bebop piano. His playing was different, from a harmonic perspective. When I heard Roy with Jackie, I was swept away, so I gave bebop a try. It seemed to come to me naturally. Luckily I knew I could fall back on Dixieland and traditional jazz—Jimmy [McPartland]'s form of music—if I had to or needed other types of gigs." [Pictured above: Jackie Cain and Roy Kral]

Marian began a series of critically acclaimed club dates in 1952 on New York's 52nd St. Several of her appearances at the Hickory House were recorded, revealing an enormously fluid player who not only understood the idiom but also could add an English polish to her attack. Playing on 52nd St.—where jazz clubs in brownstones stood shoulder to shoulder competing for passersby—put her in competition with some of the finest pianists of her generation.

“Hearing others never discouraged me," Marian told me. “I felt I was part of the scene. I was in it for good. But it took determination to play music that people identified with men. Yet I always seemed to do well."

Her husband Jimmy played a strong role in Marian's career, providing her with support and confidence. But they were often of two different mindsets—Marian, a modern player, and Jimmy, a pre-war hot-jazz force whose popularity in jazz circles had waned. By 1970, they divorced. “I think the divorce was more painful for him than me," she told me. “I was the one who wanted it. God knows why. When we got the divorce, we became very friendly. Jimmy said, 'It seems we had to get a divorce to learn to treat each other nicely.' Even though we were divorced, we still worked together. He never found anyone else to marry. Maybe if he did I might have jumped in because I was jealous. We remarried, of course, just before his death in 1991." [Pictured above: The Marian McPartland Trio at the Hickory House]

Marian would continue to play and record in the decades that followed but she also wisely started Piano Jazz for National Public Radio in 1978. Her gentle curiosity and country-garden kindness enabled her to attract jazz pianists as well as non-jazz guests who secretly loved the music and could play it on the piano—either alone or in duet with Marian. In this regard, Marian became the jazz world's Fred Rogers—creating a tranquil, intelligent and educational zone for listeners that was almost child-like in its focused calm and simplicity. [Pictured above: Marian McPartland and Bill Evans on Piano Jazz in 1979]

My favorite period of Marian's was her live recordings in the early and mid-1950s. When I told Marian this, I made a point of telling her why—that her playing was so full of enthusiasm, optimism and mischief. “That's true," she said, pausing. “I'll go along with that. Absolutely. That just about describes me very well."

JazzWax tracks: Marian was a song scholar—and knew more songs than virtually anyone else in the business. “Oh, I don't know," she said to me when I raised her reputation. “Dick Hyman may know more." 

As I mentioned above, my favorite period of Marian's was the early '50s. There is no one box set yet that captures all of these dates but I did figure out a way to assemble most of them.

If you download All My Life, At the Hickory House, On 52nd St. and After Dark, you'll hear what I'm talking about. These recordings span from 1952 to 1955. 

JazzWax note: In 2010, David Brent Johnson, host of WFIU's Night Lights in Bloomington, Ind., aired a tribute to Marian that included excepts from an interview that Dick Bishop conducted with her in 1975. Go here

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved.

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